Badly mauled, will Cong recuperate?

Badly mauled, will Cong recuperate?

The Congress did not fight this Lok Sabha election to win. It fought the poll on a negative agenda - to prevent Narendra Modi from becoming the prime minister. Even that intent came too late, after a spell of confusion and dithering over a strategy to pin down Modi.

Initially, the party was too smug even to acknowledge Modi’s emergence at the national scene. Congress spokespersons were told not to react to Modi barbs - he was not befitting of a response. While some leaders wanted to aggressively target Modi, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi was against any personal attacks. The party, however, was rattled by his rising graph as the campaign gained momentum and was forced to change its strategy. Senior leaders launched an offensive against Modi and even tried to rake up the “snoopgate” issue in vain.

The Congress mistakenly believed that the friction between Advani and Modi factions will work to its electoral advantage. In-house strategists apparently did not take into account the RSS’ capacity to broker truce in the saffron parivar.  Underestimating Modi and his pointman Amit Shah was only a part of the Congress sob story. A plethora of factors contributed to its comprehensive and humiliating defeat since 1952.

The party faulted by excessively focusing on the Gujarat CM making it a Modi vs Congress campaign. The sole emotive issue, Gujarat riots, which besmirched Modi’s image 12 years ago, did not find traction among the voters aged 18-plus. While Modi managed a counter polarisation packaging subtle Hindutva with development, the Congress failed to unveil a convincing blueprint for development, job creation and curbing inflation. 

Ten years of anti-incumbency, scams, governance deficit, anti-graft agitation by Anna Hazare and later the formation of Aam Admi Party had already fertilised the anti-Congress mood. To compound matters, the party lacked in political and media management and as a corollary, lost the perception battle. The party also alienated India Inc, especially its traditional election funders from Mumbai.  

Oblivious of the ground realities, Rahul squandered almost two years with his ill-timed experiments with democratisation and corporatisation of Congress party. The decision to experiment with US-type primaries, employing contradictory methods (marrying NGO-type politics into corporate style) did not go down well with the cadre who felt alienated. The experiments could have waited; not when the party was gasping for breath. Rahul’s didactic and academic approach and emotional speeches did not enthuse the new voters.

In contrast to Modi, the Gandhi scion lacked the killer instinct and the disconnect between Sonia and Rahul camps after his anointment as vice president did not help. The indifference towards allies, some of whom drifted away, had its own impact. Sonia, who was proactive in 2009, took a backseat due to health reasons.The party was also hit by leadership vacuum at state and national level. Several mass leaders died untimely and many ageing leaders have been consigned to Raj Bhavans which have since become geriatric wards.

After the sudden death of the Andhra Pradesh CM Y S Rajashekhara Reddy, the party messed up the Telengana issue and the revolt by his son Jaganmohan Reddy. The result: it lost 32 Lok Sabha seats from the state. The Congress also paid a heavy price for ignoring the social media and the middle class. Partymen held the view that the middle class did not vote, but in this election they proved the Congress wrong.
 While the party focused too much on aam admi and welfare schemes, the aspirational class was ignored. In fact, nothing was going good for the Congress after the 2G scam erupted in 2010. An electoral disaster was waiting to happen and it is puzzling that the party honchos failed to read the writing on the wall. 

Rout in states

Last winter, the Congress was routed in four major states which went to poll. In the national capital, its assembly tally was reduced to single digit, lowest in party’s history. Rajasthan, from where it won 20 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats five years ago, was another shocker: the party clocked its lowest-ever assembly tally. 

A year earlier to that, in 2012, the UP assembly poll results were a blow and eye opener. The Congress drew a blank in the assembly segments of parliamentary constituencies held by Sonia, Salman Khurshid, Mohammed Azharuddin, Raj Babbar, Anu Tandon, Beni Prasad Verma, Pradeep  Kumar Jain, Jitin Prasada and P L Punia, while Amethi of Rahul elected just two party MLAs. Still, eyes did not open and heads did not roll. 

The future does not bode well for the Congress. Today, the Grand Old Party has just a handful of tried and tested leaders. It needs to create new leaders in states and promote and nurture the existing ones who are capable. It has to boost the morale of the cadre and strengthen moribund party machinery in key states like UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Odisha. 

Shell-shocked partymen have started a campaign for bringing Priyanka Gandhi to the centre stage. Many of them believe that she is astute, aggressive and in the Indira Gandhi mould. She could enthuse the workers and rebuild the party. Sonia had decided against giving a bigger role to Priyanka thinking the move may undermine Rahul’s projection, but she may be forced to rethink now. 

A five-year stint in the Opposition will do good for the party. But only time will tell whether the much-mauled dynasty can save the Congress.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)

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